Tuesday, March 2, 2004

Democratic presidential front-runner John Kerry yesterday called for an investigation into statements by former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide that he was kidnapped at gunpoint and removed from power by U.S. troops over the weekend.

“I think there ought to be some investigation of it,” the Democratic senator from Massachusetts said yesterday on NBC’s “Today.” “I have a very close friend in Massachusetts who talked directly to people who have made that allegation. I don’t know the truth of it. I really don’t. But I think it needs to be explored, and we need to know the truth of what happened.”

White House spokesman Scott McClellan suggested that Mr. Kerry’s call for an inquiry was politically motivated and said it was irresponsible to give credence to the word of Mr. Aristide.

“I think the absurd accusations that some have chosen to repeat do nothing to help the Haitian people, and they do nothing to help move forward during this difficult period,” Mr. McClellan said, adding, “I understand that [Mr. Kerry] is a political candidate running for office.”

Mr. Aristide’s claim has irked the leaders of the country hosting his exile, the Central African Republic. They took away Mr. Aristide’s telephone yesterday, which he had used to call U.S. media outlets and make his kidnapping claims, and asked him to stop blaming the United States for his departure as they work to get another country to take him.

“The authorities have already called on Aristide to remain calm, to stop making accusations against America,” Foreign Minister Charles Wenezoui told the Associated Press. “We fear that this kind of declaration compromises relations between the Central African Republic and the United States.”

Mr. Wenezoui said the Central African Republic was working to find another country to accept Mr. Aristide “in the days to come.”

“He’s already started to embarrass us,” Agence France-Presse quoted Communications Minister Parfait Mbaye as saying about Mr. Aristide. “He’s scarcely been here 24 hours, and he’s causing problems for Central African diplomacy.”

Many Democrats, however, continue to push Mr. Aristide’s case.

Mr. Kerry’s daughter Vanessa said at a campaign stop for her father in New York on Monday that the Bush administration “just helped overthrow, basically overthrow a democratically elected president.”

Mr. Kerry declined yesterday to dispel that statement on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Asked whether he agreed with his daughter, Mr. Kerry replied, “I didn’t say that,” but added that the Bush administration “empowered the opposition, the insurgents” by allowing the situation in Haiti to deteriorate.

Mr. Aristide was re-elected in 2000 in elections that were condemned by the United States, the United Nations and the Organization of American States as corrupt. According to the CIA and international human rights groups, Mr. Aristide never abandoned the country’s 200-year practice of political violence and assassination.

The former Haitian president also has been criticized for advocating “necklacing,” a method of public execution in which a tire is soaked in gasoline, put around a person’s neck and set on fire.

Rep. Barbara Lee, California Democrat and co-chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus’ Haiti Task Force, said she will use a hearing today of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee to explore the idea that Mr. Aristide was the victim of “what was effectively a coup d’etat supported by the Bush administration.”

“All we are trying to discover is exactly what happened,” Mrs. Lee said.

Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, chalked up Mr. Aristide’s comments as an attempt to “save face” and found it “amazing” that Democrats “buy this nonsense.”

“Whether he was asked to leave, [as] he certainly was by a lot of different governments [or] whether he was helped in that process of leaving is, frankly, irrelevant,” Mr. Santorum said.

Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, said Mr. Aristide’s departure was complicated by the fact that “Secretary of State Colin Powell had such a tough time finding … any country which would take him.”

At least one Democrat, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, has said he did not believe Mr. Aristide’s version of events.

“Senator Harkin does not believe [Mr. Aristide] was kidnapped and does believe that he resigned,” Harkin spokeswoman Allison Dobson told Newsday Monday.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration yesterday rejected bids for power in Haiti by the rebels to Mr. Aristide’s regime.

“The rebels do not have a role” in the political solution to the chaos in Haiti, said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

“The rebels have to lay down their arms and go home,” he said, rejecting a declaration by rebel leader Guy Philippe that he had become the new chief of Haiti’s military.

Mr. Boucher said the State Department would cooperate with any congressional investigation, but questioned the need for them.

“I don’t really think there needs to be a whole lot of debate or discussion about this,” Mr. Boucher said. “The facts are certainly very clear to us, they’re certainly very clear to the people in Haiti who have received [Mr. Aristide’s] letter of resignation.”

The Pentagon said yesterday that as many as 400 Marines are now in Haiti and as many as 2,000 U.S. troops could be deployed to help stabilize the country. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said U.S. forces would remain in Haiti for only a short time until an international force could take over.

Tom Carter contributed to this report.

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